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Over the last several years, the government has allocated vacant school premises and greenfield sites to address the alarming deficit of school spaces in Hong Kong. Leon Lee spoke to some of the schools who were awarded and denied a site in the latest round of allocations to learn more about the situation

Like in every industry in Hong Kong, the lack of space is an issue in the education sector, especially for international schools. In 2013, the Education Bureau warned of a shortage of 4,200 school places by 2016. As of the 2014/2015 school year, there is a total of 50 international schools in the city offering 40,957 places.

In an effort to provide more school spaces, the government has identified and allocated vacant school premises and greenfield sites for the construction of new schools through an extensive application process. Since 2008, 16 of those have been allocated. The most recent allocations were announced at the end of May of this year for five sites.

Forty applications were received and in the end, The Harbour School and ESOL Education were each awarded a vacant school premise while French International School, Shrewsbury School and Malvern College were each awarded one of the three available greenfield sites. According to the government, the allotted schools will provide an additional 4,270 school spaces, 3,490 primary and 780 secondary school spaces.

Growing Pains

Every school has their own reasons to apply for the allocations. Some were starting their first schools in the city, others were trying to add to their existing campuses in the city. For both The Harbour School and International Montessori School, it was about finding security.

The Harbour School (THS) currently operates two campuses, one in Kennedy Town and a newer venue in Ap Lei Chau. Both of them are located in commercial buildings so the school would need to re-up their lease every year or so, or otherwise be thrown out once their lease is up. This is exactly what the International

Montessori School (IMS) is facing. IMS currently has four campuses on Hong Kong Island – Mid-levels, Ap Lei Chau, Tin Hau and a new place in Stanley, which was awarded in a previous round of allocation. But their lease for the Tin Hau school is up in July of next year and the landlords has made it clear that they need to move out.

Photo 13-223“We have a lease on our Tin Hau campus, which is ending in July 2016, so we really needed to find a replacement campus. Participating in the school allocation exercise is really the only channel that you can go through to find a school facility of that kind of size for what we needed to relocate our Tin Hau community. If we had been awarded something, we would have moved from Tin Hau to the new location,” Karin Ann, co-founder and principal of IMS, explains.

However, they were not awarded either the greenfield site in Tseung Kwan O or the vacant school premise in Ap Lei Chau that they applied for. The Ap Lei Chau school went to THS.

For THS, the new school means an opportunity to continue to build on the success they have accomplished so far. Started in 2007, the school currently has 165 students in their mainstream school and 18 in The Children’s Institute, their center for autistic students. Their students and teachers have won numerous awards and recognitions. In 2014, they won second place in Pearson’s “21st Century School Of The Year” Competition.

“The school in Kennedy Town is not very big, a few classrooms. It’s a very nice space that we’ve done good stuff with it. But there is no playground, auditorium, none of the facilities that you think of normally being in a school. So we were really space deficient. We were doing all kinds of great things but without any space and security to do it in,” Dr. Jadis Blurton, THS’s Head of School, explains.

The vacant Ap Lei Chau school currently has six floors spread over two wings. THS have plans to add another floor, a swimming pool and an auditorium/library/performance space to the existing structure. When it opens in September 2016, it would be able to accommodate 500 students from kindergarten to eighth grade.

When they found out they got the space, they were obviously ecstatic. “We had put our heart and soul into the bid. Failure is not an option. But we kept telling ourselves we shouldn’t count on it, we should be making alternative plans and we did,” says Blurton.

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Dr. Jadis Blurton

IMS also put in their best effort in their bid but had the opposite results. They were disappointed and heartbroken but had their own alternative plans.

“When we got the Stanley campus, we really were seeing a lot of demandand rapid growth. Basically what we did is we started to manage that admissions because of the uncertainty around Tin Hau. We’re relocating a portion of our Tin Hau campus to the Stanley campus and then the other portion we’re actually in the process of trying to find something else more in the local area that we can have our kindergarten students continue to attend around the north side of Hong Kong Island,” says Ann.

Currently there are around 300 students in the Tin Hau campus. If they were awarded the school site, they were planning to add 300 to 400 more students in the addition to the ones moved from Tin Hau.

Despite the disappointment, Ann is optimistic about the future of the school. “For us, the future is bright. We’ve grown very quickly. We will be filling the campuses very soon. There continues to be a strong demand. Now we have a very strong network and reputation, it’s a time to maybe stabilize a little bit and we look forward to that. We have some great people in place to help us run our whole school in different locations. Perhaps it’s a time to consolidate and it’s come at a good time.”

Adding value

The huge demand for an international education certainly makes Hong Kong an attractive city for schools to set up new campuses.

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“Hong Kong is an important market for us. It is very close to China where we have a strong presence with 17 schools from kindergarten to high school. Hong Kong also has an international community that values high quality education and a very talented international work force. This is an important consideration for starting an international school as it attracts discerning international families as well as offers many exciting opportunities for international educators to work here,” says Ng Gim Choo, Group Managing Director of EtonHouse International Education Group.

The group currently operates two pre-schools in Hong Kong, one in Pak Shek Kok and another in Tai Tam. Parents often mention to them about starting a primary school in Hong Kong. With their extensive experience in operating over 100 international schools and pre-schools in 12 countries, they were confident that they would be able to offer something of value to the international school community in the city. They had planned to start a K-12 school offering an International Baccalaureate program. But unfortunately, EtonHouse did not receive an allocation this time. Ng expressed disappointment at the results, but respected the decision and hope to have opportunities to apply again in the future.

UK’s Malvern College also believe that they have much to contribute to the educational community when they applied for the greenfield site in Tai Po.

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“The overall thinking is that we believe the British boarding school is something that offers a very holistic education to students internationally. When we had a discussion with the Board of Malvern, they were very excited to extend that kind of education offering to the communities in Asia,” says Jacqueline So, Chief Executive of Malvern College Hong Kong.

“We believe Hong Kong is a community that can really benefit from the kind of things we can offer, including educational, the International Baccalaureate and the different kinds of sports, art and music.”

When it was announced that they would receive a site, they were obviously happy. The school purposely chose the Tai Po site because of its proximity to the Hong Kong Science Park. The school is traditionally focused on the sciences so they plan to have future collaborations with the park and the companies who reside in it. In fact, they are planning to have a large periodic table on one side of the building. The building would also have science labs, art rooms, a full gymnasium, swimming pool and a sky pitch on the roof. The design of the building has been confirmed and they’ll looking to do the ground breaking in March or April of 2016 with the building to be completed before the summer of 2018.

So says that there has been a lot of interest in the school so far in international school fairs. The admission process will start in September 2016 for 2018. When the school first opens, they will offer around 380 primary places. Eventually the school will grow to 960 places for both primary and early years of secondary schools.

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Rendering of Malvern College Hong Kong

The process

Regardless of the results, each interviewee found the school allocation process to be satisfactory. They all agreed that it was a comprehensive and thoughtful process and that the government has made the effort and taken the steps to address the issue.

To further help the situation, both EtonHouse’s Ng and IMS’s Ann brought up the identification of unused school premises.

“Hong Kong still has a number of vacant schools as a result of schools being closed down because the demographics changed. But they’re not always accessible to schools and it’s not always clear what’s available, where they are and who controls them,” says Ann. “As a layman, I would say if there could be some process to harness that and make those unused spaces available.”

And while the more school spaces available the better, THS’s Blurton believes those places also need to be put to good use.

“With these allocations, I think there are going to be a lot more spaces available. But one of the things that I think is really important is that we should have a variety of schools, different types of schools because that just creates a rich environment,” the Head of School says.

“It should be a buyer’s market. Right now it’s a seller’s market. There’s no incentive to work with the parents and the child because you have a waiting list of a million people. We want it to be much more flexible and competitive.”